The Family History: Part One 1

Bioware games chron­i­cle how one per­son unites dis­parate per­son­al­i­ties and turns them into an unstop­pable force. Dragon Age II is the epit­o­me of that idea, a fam­i­ly saga ruled by peo­ple and not events. It’s been the RPG model for NPCs to show the play­er the way, guid­ing them from one quest to anoth­er. That ten­den­cy finds its best real­iza­tion to date, and it’s all because of the char­ac­ters and what they have at stake.

Dragon Age II at its most con­tained is the story of Hawke and her rise to power. Around it, how­ev­er, there are mul­ti­ple and var­ied threads bring­ing togeth­er friends, fam­i­ly, and every­one the pro­tag­o­nist has to knock heads with. This empha­sis on other char­ac­ters places Hawke’s story clos­er to the back­ground, mak­ing the protagonist–companion rela­tion­ship more hor­i­zon­tal than ver­ti­cal. Each com­pan­ion comes with a lengthy story arc run­ning side by side, draw­ing a his­to­ry of rela­tion­ships and events for the city. To be clear, their story arcs don’t just hap­pen to be in the game. They are the game.

There is no con­cep­tion of per­son­al quest as the idea has been imple­ment­ed before, a one off mis­sion to the side of the main quest line. When Leliana must deal with a threat from her past, she asks the Warden to per­form a brief task, after which the prob­lem never returns. Fenris, on the other hand, is hunt­ed for a decade by his for­mer mas­ter, and even after killing him and all his lieu­tenants, may never be whole. No amount of pep talks can heal such a wound, and that’s the sin­gle most impor­tant thing about Dragon Age II. The char­ac­ters are giants that even the pro­tag­o­nist can­not over­come. At the end, when it’s time to choose your side, the sup­port­ing cast doesn’t rally around you and con­grat­u­late your lead­er­ship. They don’t send you off — the Chosen One — to defeat the ancient evil (there is none). They ask you to do what they think is right, their loy­al­ty in the bal­ance. They do not exist to sat­is­fy you; you exist to sat­is­fy them.

Another con­cept that is jet­ti­soned is the exter­nal threat. There is no Blight, no Reapers, no Sith. We expect the antagonist’s forces to hold the ini­tia­tive, dic­tat­ing the pace of the adven­ture, while the play­er is the plucky under­dog, fol­low­ing a neat struc­ture that takes them to the far­thest cor­ners of the world. By con­trast, Dragon Age II is murky, dense with mate­r­i­al, with no clear antag­o­nist. You never change locales. Your des­ti­na­tion is also your point of ori­gin. Most impor­tant is where the drama comes from. Other pro­tag­o­nists are moved to action in order to save the king­dom. Not Hawke, whose main con­cern is the secu­ri­ty of her fam­i­ly, and a life that might be lived in squalor.

There is anoth­er crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence. Hawke works with peo­ple who may despise her, char­ac­ters who rather than extol her deeds, might want to indict her crimes. Let’s harken back to Origins. I can’t think of anoth­er game that dis­played the degree to which char­ac­ters liked you. Neverwinter Nights 2 for instance announced when­ev­er you gained Influence Points with your com­pan­ions, but never dis­played a meter you could keep track of. It made the process more intu­itive and less exploita­tive. It made it feel more like a con­ver­sa­tion.

Origins’ meter incar­nat­ed an abom­inable idea of friend­ship: the char­ac­ters only grow close to you if you sub­scribe to their exact sys­tem of val­ues, and the only way to become friends with each of them is to say what­ev­er they want to hear, regard­less of con­tra­dic­tion. Honesty is pun­ished, lip ser­vice is reward­ed. The friendship–rivalry meter dou­bles the dimen­sions, all the while mak­ing the typ­i­cal Bioware mis­take of leav­ing out a mid­dle ground. Rather than say what they want to hear, you now have the choice of say­ing what they don’t want to hear. This doesn’t always mean antag­o­niz­ing them. Sometimes it means say­ing the awful truth that, for instance, Merrill can’t accept. She might resent you for it, but at least she heard it, and you said it.

There’s anoth­er sub­tle dif­fer­ence that under­scores a big thing for the char­ac­ters. They don’t jour­ney with you across Ferelden. They don’t live on the ship you cap­tain. They’re not housed in lit­tle rooms in Hawke Hotel. They live in dif­fer­ent parts of the city, avail­able to you when­ev­er you want to visit them, but essen­tial­ly inde­pen­dent, up to their own devices. Often you find them vis­it­ing each other, chat­ting, and you real­ize they have devel­oped rela­tion­ships with each other that sim­ply have noth­ing to do with you. You are a recur­ring inci­dent in their lives, but hard­ly the only one.

Spatial sep­a­ra­tion does more than that. Bioware’s pro­tags are always alphas, com­ing with per­son­al­i­ties so force­ful they snuff out every­body else. It’s the most nat­ur­al thing for them to take charge of the sit­u­a­tion, run­ning over every­one. The phys­i­cal dis­tance between Hawke and her group under­mines her boss com­plex and empha­sizes the char­ac­ters’ need for space. There’s more. Dragon Age II is a decade’s worth of events, so quests done one after anoth­er in just a sin­gle act can be months apart. What we see are sig­nif­i­cant moments in lives that oth­er­wise carry on with­out inci­dent. More time is spent apart than togeth­er.

Bioware’s infa­mous char­ac­ter arche­types aren’t entire­ly gone. You find them here as well: the awk­ward girl, the funny guy, the des­ig­nat­ed buddy, the trag­ic fig­ure. When Dragon Age II shipped it seemed that its entire cast would be sim­i­lar­ly bound up by the­mat­ic allo­ca­tions: Fenris, the mage hat­ing guy; Anders, the mage fanat­ic. They’re still here, but it goes beyond that. For once we have true, liv­ing inter­ests that tran­scend their place in Bioware’s schemas. The ideas the char­ac­ters rep­re­sent aren’t sim­ple announce­ments of what they’re going to say and do, but life­long pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. We’re deal­ing with obses­sions, unremit­ting as the trau­mas that caused them, work­ing their roots into the fab­ric of Kirkwall, and deep into the Hawke fam­i­ly his­to­ry.


Andrei Filote

About Andrei Filote

Andrei Filote lives somewhere between the Alps and the sea. He studies foreign languages and writes about games and all things eSports. You can tweet to him @letominor.

One thought on “The Family History: Part One

  • starried

    Just want­ed to say I enjoyed this arti­cle as it artic­u­lates every­thing DA2 got right in my opin­ion. For all its faults, I still think it’s rather amaz­ing that this was a AAA fan­ta­sy game that had no epic story or a bat­tle against an ‘ancient evil’ at the end.

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